The healthcare landscape is changing fast. According to research from McKinsey, only 11% of patients accessed remote healthcare in 2019. That number jumped to 46% in 2020, and more than 75% of patients now say they hope to use telehealth in the future.
It’s a once-in-a-generation behavior shift that will change the way we access hearing healthcare in the future. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing interviews from several industry leaders who share their take on how remote care might change the future of audiology.
Today’s interview is with Laurel Christensen, Chief Audiologist at GN Hearing. Dr. Christensen oversees a large team of researchers and audiologists who create the ReSound and Beltone brands of hearing aids.
Q: Telehealth is the buzzword of the day. Do you think it has a long-term place within audiological care, or is this a trend that will fade post-pandemic?
While COVID-19 restrictions certainly accelerated adoption of telemedicine in audiology and ushered in new technology to facilitate it, the demand and need for remote care solutions will not go away…it will only grow.
Telehealth is a fairly recent introduction to hearing care. GN first introduced remote-fine-tuning in 2017. But like in other health fields, teleaudiology is a great way to improve access to hearing care. Especially for elderly patients that may have limited mobility or for people live far away from their provider. As technology continues to improve, I think we’ll be amazed at how well we will be able to provide care remotely. I know we will continue to innovate in this area, helping hearing aid users and their hearing care professionals connect via remote, digital solutions that work best for them.
Q: What are some of the upsides and drawbacks to remote audiological care?
An important component of comprehensive hearing healthcare is the consultation you receive from a hearing care professional. Traditionally, this meant making numerous in-clinic visits. But technology advances and COVID-19 has changed that. New tools are being developed every day. What once might have been only possible to do in-person will be able to be done remotely.
Already, real-time, face-to-face video consultations such as ReSound Assist Live now allow hearing care professionals to provide advice and make programming adjustments to hearing aids remotely. Bottomline, patients sill receive individualized care as part of a convenient service when and where it’s needed.
Q: Do you see tech adoption holding back telehealth?
No, not really. Not in the long-run. Just like shopping online or working from home….we’ve become more comfortable with doing things via our computer or smartphone. Telehealth, in general, has grown substantially due to COVID-19 and I think people have come to expect that it isn’t necessary to always go to a clinic to seen by a healthcare professional.
Of course, it will be important to keep the focus on developing user-centric systems that minimize or eliminate the potential technological barriers. We learn a lot from patient feedback, and it’s important to continue to incorporate those learnings, as these advances help improve access for people…not only those who have trouble leaving the house but those who may live miles away from their doctor. And as technology improves, it will only get better and easier.
Q: The industry embraces remote care for follow-up appointments. Is there a place for entirely remote care in the future?
Yes. Rapid advances in tele-audiology make fully remote visits something within reach. As long as we can ensure that people are getting the care and support they need. In fact, it is already happening. It’s important now that we continue to improve processes and technology to make these experiences even better. We cannot sacrifice standards of care, yet when it can be done via telehealth solutions we should embrace it.
It will be a great tool to have as we strive to reach underserved populations, especially those in rural areas. And as the elderly population is expected to grow, we’ll need to change our healthcare models for more remote and digital care, as we’ll simply not have enough trained healthcare workers to keep up with the demand. We already see this in countries like China, where audiologists, with a per capita rate of less than five per 1 million people, are being overwhelmed by those seeking hearing care.
And as an added benefit, cutting down on transportation could also prove an easy step to improve our environmental footprint. We saw how reduced traffic during the pandemic improved air quality, so every little bit can help.
Q: What are some of the challenges that completely remote care pose for patients and audiologists?
As many of us have learned from working at home, and connecting with friends and family via FaceTime, it’s hard for video calls to be a substitute when building personal relationships. That relationship with a hearing care professional should not be minimized, but there are ways to connect, even via digital platforms. Undoubtedly, there are certain benefits that come from in-person visits when it works for both the patient and the hearing care professionals. But remote care is a great option when time, mobility or distance is a barrier to care.
And the good news is that technology is getting better, and more and more hearing care professionals are implementing these services into their practices. People are also becoming better at adapting to new ways of connecting in the “new normal” established during the pandemic. We learn and adapt to the conditions we’ve been in for a while now, and I don’t think we’ll go back to how it was before.
Q: How should audiologists begin preparing for more remote care in the future?
As the hearing health care landscape continues to evolve, and as we work to stay on the leading-edge of technology, we also need to address the evolving needs of today’s patients. And that includes supporting efforts that could improve access to life-changing hearing technology, including new ways to receive hearing care.
It starts with investing time in learning the technology and how to best incorporate it into their practices. For instance, training staff on how these different physical and digital touchpoints can give patient’s the best of both worlds. Support staff in offices can be invaluable for helping patients set up the technology and be ready for a tele-audiology visit before the HCP visit.
Not only does remote care give the flexibility to meet a patient’s wishes and needs, but we’ve also seen that it will actually help improve workflow and profitability of the clinic.
Q: If you imagine the world of hearing health in 5 years, how much has it shifted towards remote care?
‘Who knows’ is the safe answer. We do know that the number of Americans who reported having participated in at least one telehealth visit since the COVID-19 outbreak has increased significantly, with many of them saying they plan to use telehealth once the pandemic ends.
In the midst of the pandemic, we accelerated the launch of new technologies to help hearing care professionals treat patients remotely. And they are adopting and using this technology at rates never seen…we saw average monthly remote care sessions increase nearly 200 percent from 2019. It seems that teleaudiology is here to stay, and will only grow in adoption and usage as technology and comfort levels increase.
Q: What role will hardware and tech improvements have on remote models of care?
ReSound is constantly striving to improve our software and hardware, and how they work together. Hearing care professionals should expect to see an even smoother integration with a more user-friendly flow for fitting and providing services remotely. We’re constantly asking for feedback and developing our systems to give providers and their patients the best user experience.
In the near future, advanced technologies like AI and other innovations are likely to detect usage, behavior and needs of hearing aid users, those that allow these settings to help them improve their hearing experience automatically. At GN, we’re already looking into how people use our ReSound and Beltone hearing aids and the related apps and remote services. We then apply this large data sets to spot patterns and ways of giving people a better, more personalized and intelligent hearing solution. These findings can also be shared with hearing care professional, who can in turn update and improve the hearing experience and the personal care for each person.